The Statement

Combined rail-and-bus season tickets are available from some rail stations. This means if you can make your main journey by rail, you can then complete it by bus. Two separate season tickets may be required for some destinations.

The Question

When using a combined rail-and-bus season ticket, the major part of your journey must be by train.

The official answer is True.

I'm very confused, since the original statement only suggests that both travel types can be combined. Nowhere it says the major part must be by train, i.e. this ticket also permits me to travel by train 1 stop (minor part) and the rest of my journey by the bus (major part).

  • 2
    This is another one of these questions where the answer differs depending on whether you're supposed to prioritise logical interpretation or pragmatic interpretation. And unless this is spelled out, the question is unfair. So unless this maxim is given to those taking the test elsewhere, this question is inherently unfair. // A logician says ' ... if you can make your main journey by rail, you can then complete it by bus' does not preclude 'if you can make any part of your journey by rail, you can then complete it by bus', 'you can make part of your journey by bus and complete it by rail' ... Nov 14, 2020 at 11:44
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    or indeed 'you may eat sandwiches on the platform'. / The pragmatist (and probably the examiner) would, on the contrary, say that the default sense picked up by the man on the Clapham Omnibus is that the major part of the journey should be by rail. // Lawyers make millions arguing over how these things may be variously interpreted. I dislike such exam questions intensely; they should include 'Most proficient native speakers would probably interpret this as meaning ...'. Nov 14, 2020 at 11:45
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    @KateBunting Thanks, but re: Common sense suggests that you wouldn't buy a ticket at a railway station unless you were intending to make the greater part of the journey by train, the train station might be the only place to sell such tickets (we don't know), whether the train portion is major or minor. Nov 14, 2020 at 13:41
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    @KateBunting What bothers with these questions is that I'm trying to be as precise as possible, but being punished for this. I wonder if it's better to answer more superficially and start to assume things, which I really hate. The man enters McDonalds. Common sense suggests he's going to buy a burger :-( Nov 14, 2020 at 13:48
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    @IvanBalashov, yes, that is bothersome, and what makes it particularly bothersome is that the same students who are preparing for this test, may, in the course of their education, have to take other tests on which they will be 'punished' if they do assume anything that is not explicitly stated or logically (as opposed to pragmatically) implied by it. Unfortunately, there is nothing that anybody on this site can do about it, other that express our sympathy with you and many other young people who are in the same situation.
    – jsw29
    Nov 14, 2020 at 16:17

1 Answer 1


The fact that the questions that exhibit this pattern keep recurring on this site indicates that it is a pervasive problem with the IELTS that those who write it apparently expect the texts to be interpreted in the way in which they would be interpreted in a fast-moving casual conversation, by people of only moderate attentiveness, rather than in the way in which a lawyer would analyse a legal document, or the way in which a conscientious student is expected to read, say, a mathematics textbook.

In this particular case, the authors of the test expect the candidates to interpret the crucial clause 'if you can make your main journey by rail' as if it were 'only if you can make your main journey by rail'. Now, in casual conversations if is indeed sometimes treated as if it were only if, but everybody who has taken an introductory logic course is likely to be familiar with the difference between the logical relationship expressed by if and by only if, when they are used carefully and precisely. The authors of the test apparently expect the candidates to either not be familiar with that difference or to somehow figure out that they are supposed to deliberately ignore it.

The question also assumes that it is obvious that your main journey is interchangeable with the major part of your journey; that may be debatable.

In a comment, Mr. Ashworth has diagnosed the problem in terms of the authors of the test expecting the answers to take into account the pragmatics, without making that expectation explicit in the instructions. Pragmatic considerations are, however, supposed to be sensitive to the context, and in this case 'if you can make your main journey by rail' occurs in the context of some formal rules about the validity of rail-and-bus tickets, and not in the context of a casual conversation. The considerations of pragmatics would tell one that such a quasi-legal context calls for careful scrutiny of the text and attention to such details as whether it uses if or only if. The OP's reasoning is thus correct even if one takes pragmatics into consideration.

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